U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains a physical presence in Bowling Green.
Immigration advocates say that many in the local immigrant community are not aware of the agency’s presence, and posts on social media claiming of raids or mass arrests in the area can stoke unreasonable fears.
“Many immigrants already have families established here who are afraid of their legal status being changed from one day to the next,” said Francisco Serrano, a Bowling Green advocate whose parents came to the U.S. from El Salvador in the 1990s seeking political asylum from a brutal civil war.
A small office houses officers with Homeland Security Investigations, one of the directorates organized under ICE that investigates all types of cross-border criminal activity, including drug trafficking, financial crimes and gang violence.
While there are HSI officers here, the branch responsible for enforcing U.S. immigration laws and ensuring the removal of undocumented immigrants, Enforcement and Removal Operations, does not have a Bowling Green field office, according to ICE spokeswoman Nicole Alberico.
“HSI – and previously the legacy agency U.S. Customs which became HSI in 2003, has maintained an investigative office in Bowling Green since the early 1990s,” Alberico said in an email.
Locally, the federal court system sees the occasional prosecution of an undocumented immigrant who has been arrested for re-entering the U.S. after deportation following a previous criminal conviction, but those cases comprise a relatively small portion of the caseload in Bowling Green’s federal court system.
“ICE does not disclose its specific investigative or law enforcement methods, techniques or tools,” Alberico said. “However, ICE frequently works with local and state jurisdictions throughout the U.S. For example, HSI special agents support and work collaboratively with joint law enforcement task forces to assist with child exploitation investigations, human trafficking investigations, narcotics violations, etc.”
The number of administrative arrests made nationwide by ERO officers for civil violations of federal immigration laws has been on an upward trend since 2016, with 158,581 arrests recorded last year, the highest recorded number since 2014.
Locally, the migrant and refugee population has brought attention to concerns stemming from the Trump administration’s hard-line policy against illegal immigration.
Last year, Bowling Green was one of several cities to host a demonstration against the policy of separating migrant families entering at America’s southern border.
Serrano, whose brother was deported and whose parents faced the prospect of removal last year when their temporary protected status neared an end, was a coordinator and one of the speakers at the event.
His work as an advocate includes referring migrants to the Bowling Green International Center or other Kentucky-based organizations serving foreign-born residents that can inform them of their legal rights.
In that capacity, social media can be helpful for directing migrant populations to important resources, but they can be lost in the noise of other posts that report the presence of an ICE agent but carry few details.
“When families are looking online for resources I highly recommend that they look at credible sources of information as opposed to just an everyday person who believes they’re doing the right thing by saying ‘ICE is here’ because they’ve seen a Homeland Security vehicle,” Serrano said. “There’s a lot of information which may have good intent but all it does is send people into a panic and it disrupts people’s lives.”
Carlos Bailey, a Bowling Green attorney, has worked cases involving immigration rights, representing immigrants who fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which provides a path to a work permit and defers deportation for some immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Bailey said the current political climate has made for a more fearful environment for immigrants regardless of their legal status.
“There are people who are DACA recipients who fear that their DACA status is going to be taken from them at anytime and ICE can try to grab them or grab a family member ... when they hear ‘ICE’ it does scare them, and it’s been ramped up,” Bailey said. “I do understand that our borders need to be secured, but the legal process doesn’t necessarily mean to violate a person’s rights. ... My clients fear that they can be shipped back to a country they’ve never known. A lot of my clients grew up here, many of them have fought in our Army and put their life on the line and have been deported or their families have been deported.”